Why Don’t People Listen?

As a teacher to a bunch of adolescent ‘adults’, I often feel like no one ever listens to me. I will give directions three times (printed and verbal) and I find myself repeating those directions to at least five students. When I talk incessantly about my upcoming spring break trip to my friend, and then the day I am leaving, she sends me a message to ask if I can house sit for he…or, my Starbucks barista doesn’t seem to listen when I ask her to use soy–and it definitely has milk. Even the dog doesn’t seem to listen when I ask her to please not eat my socks–those are very expensive.

The most logical conclusion is people don’t listen because they just aren’t paying attention; the students aren’t paying attention because they are distracted by their phones, my friend isn’t paying attention because she is staring off into space when I talk, my Starbucks barista isn’t paying attention because she is flirting with the other barista, and the dog doesn’t listen because, well, she doesn’t speak English.

In some ways, I think technology and innovation has been detrimental to us, because we have so much more free time on our hands that we over-fill our schedules with things that we have to think about, which busys our brains, and divides our attention. Like back in Laura Ingalls Wilder times’, people had to spend a majority of their day planting, butchering, cooking their food, collecting water, sewing their clothes. But, thanks to technology, we no longer have to do those things (a simple click on Amazon takes care of the clothing problem), so we have much more time that we can fill with work and leisure activities. Our schedules are full. People don’t listen because, while I am talking about my very busy life, their brain is outsourcing their attention. They are thinking about what time they have to leave this join in order to make their next social engagement, which color they should paint their toenails next, how expensive it would be to hire a personal chef for their dinner party, what that car scene meant in ‘This is Us’, when would be the socially appropriate time to get up to use the restroom, etc. etc.

(To which I would say, if this is the real reason people don’t listen, then everyone needs to do some more yoga and learn how to be present in The Moment).

Maybe people don’t listen because people’s listening skills are just not developed. Listening, like public speaking, riding a bike, eating with chopsticks, driving a manual, or blowing perfect bubbles, is a skill that must be taught, practiced, and refined, with special techniques. In schools these days, we are so focused on teaching “how to take a standardized test” that maybe some generations of people just missed out on these very important listening skills. Maybe if we put our inquiries in the form of multiple choice questions, they would know the answers?

But, perhaps people don’t listen simply because we just don’t speak clearly. Maybe our students, our friends, the Starbucks barista, the dog DO hear us, but perhaps what we think we said is not actually what we did say, and so therefore, the problem is actually just a miscommunication; what I thought I said was, “cite your sources” but what that meant to the students was, “copy and paste someone else’s ideas”; what I thought I said was, “we can’t wait to leave next week”, but what my friend thought I said was, “we aren’t leaving next week”; what I thought I said was, “no milk” but what the Barista heard was, “it’s not a latte without milk”.

The Existentialists believe that each of us comes with different experiences and each of those different experiences taint our perceptions of language; because we experienced different childhoods, dated differently people, connected to different characters in different movies that we watched, my perception of the word, “love”, is different than yours, so even when I say, “I love you”, we will both be drawing upon different experiences and thus, we will never, ever fully be able to accurately and adequately understand each other.

Of course, this is often innocently done. Sometimes we just don’t know that we aren’t speaking clearly. Sometimes we think we are saying we are ‘mad’, but upon later reflection, we realize that ‘mad’ was not the feeling we felt (‘mad’ was actually the feeling we felt when the custodian ate our leftovers), but rather, we were feeling ‘frustrated’ instead, and while our significant other was listening intently and heard the word ‘mad’, knowing that we were ‘frustrated’ would have ended in a better outcome. Maybe we thought it would make total sense to tell our friend to meet us at the Target off the highway (because in our minds, that is the Target off the Lincoln exit), and they show up at the Target off Arapahoe, and we have to scramble to meet each other in time. Sometimes, we think we are being perfectly clear, and while people are certainly listening to us, it is our precision of language that causes the miscommunication.

This is why studying language is so important. I find, the more I study language, the more enlightened I become, the more accurately I can speak about my feelings, my thoughts, my intentions, my schedule, and the less conflict my life has.

Maybe it’s not the other people at all who aren’t listening; maybe it’s me.

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